The lifeguard scans the water methodically from behind mirrored sunglasses. Perched on an elevated chair at a Northwest Washington apartment complex pool, she looks like a hard-working American teen. When she opens her mouth to coordinate with a fellow lifeguard, the words she calls out are Bulgarian. “We do have a hard time hiring enough American teens to fill our need for lifeguards,” said Doug Winkler of Winkler Pool Management. “That’s why many pool employers in the Mid-Atlantic region reach out to the foreign markets to attempt to hire workers.” Winkler believes the problem is that American teens do not want jobs at the low end of the pay scale and instead want to practice sports or go on family vacations in the summer, prompting him and other pool managers to do their hiring through the State Department’s cultural exchange visa program.
A Pew Research Center analysis found that the Great Recession of 2007 through 2009 caused a drastic reduction in summer jobs for American teens. The teen summer employment rate used to range from 46 percent to 58 percent, but in recent years less than a third of American teens have held summer jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the decline will continue, with 26 percent of teens holding summer jobs in the year 2024.
Why the downturn? There is no one reason, but there is plenty of speculation. Government statistics show more teens are attending school in the summer, partly because of greater pressure to take advanced classes that look good on college applications. Some teenagers also choose to enter into unpaid internships that are not counted as jobs in government data. Over the decades, high schools have added community service requirements for students, which take up time, as well. In addition, many school districts have shortened the length of their summer breaks, which may make short summer jobs seem like too much trouble to students and employers. Whatever the reason, some say it is a shame teenagers are not scooping as much ice cream or counseling as many campers as they used to.
I emailed Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford University dean of freshmen, who argued in her book “How To Raise An Adult” that making your children do chores is essential to their success as humans. Might summer jobs be important, too? I asked. “Summer jobs are even more valuable than chores to a kid’s skill development,” Lythcott-Haims replied. “Let’s face it, a boss isn’t motivated by love and typically doesn’t dole out ubiquitous praise. So a kid develops responsibility and accountability from having to show up on time, do as expected and not breach any behavioral codes. But that’s just the start. Things will go wrong, and the kid will have to problem solve. Unexpected situations will arise, and the kid will have to improvise.” Someone who develops such skills, she added, “will be a highly valued employee in the real world.”
In fact, a study from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University showed teenagers who work while in high school have higher incomes later. Another study, by a team of neuroscientists, found people are much more careful when they manage their own money — such as that earned from a summer job — than they are when they handle other people’s money — like that given to them by their parents.
Teenage siblings Alex and Rachel Downing of Overland Park, Kan., seem to get it. “My parents are weaning me off their bank account, so I need to get some money myself,” 16-year-old Rachel Downing said. “I’m hoping to get a summer job, because I need extra cash for summer entertainment.” Her college-bound brother Alex strings tennis rackets in the summers, and added, “It’s convenient not to have to ask for money daily from my parents. Also, it looks good on a résumé and shows you have work experience.” The Downings said most of their friends work — or want to work — in the summers. Their mom, Katherine Downing, an old graduate school friend of mine, added that her kids are expected to save money for college. “Tuition and room and board will be covered,” she said, “but we expect them to earn a good deal of their intended spending money.”
So how can teenagers find summer jobs to make that spending money? Many cities and counties have youth jobs programs. For example, here in the Washington area, the District of Columbia summer youth employment program subsidizes summer work opportunities for people ages 14 through 24. Montgomery County, Md., offers a TeenWorks program for young adults age 18 through 24. Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia both organize teen jobs fairs.
Companies with strong community ties are another source of jobs for teens. PG&E, the electric utility in California, has a summer jobs program. Credit Unions such as Ideal Credit Union in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and other credit unions, have been known to hire teenagers for the summer. A group called Teens In Public Service pairs teenagers with charities that offer paid internships.
Then there are the big job boards. Monster.com, which has plenty of listings, recommends teens target the top industries for summer work: construction, hospitality, landscaping, recreation and tourism. When I checked, indeed.com had listings for more than 77,000 teen summer jobs. Maybe job hunting with the masses is yet another learning, growing experience for teens. And maybe holding a summer job is such a novelty now that it will look good on college applications.
Weekly consumer columnist Elisabeth Leamy is a 13-time Emmy winner, a 25-year consumer advocate for programs such as “Good Morning America” and host of the podcast “Easy Money.” Connect with her at leamy.com and follow her @ElisabethLeamy.